Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House grew from three full-time staff (counting founder and editor-in-chief Sally Yan) in 2007 to eight within a year. It now has sales exceeding CNY 80 million ($11.6 million) and a catalogue of 600 titles, of which 70% are translations.
At the core of Beijing Dandelion’s successful publishing program is Yan’s nose for a good story. “I don’t read English, so I look at the drawings,” she says. “If I find them fun and interesting, then to me that is a good book. It has to appeal to my inner child, or it is not going to work for another child. That is the way I choose a title, and I’m sticking to that practice.” It is a practice that has served Yan well: she struck gold with The Magic School Bus, China’s #1 children’s title ever since its 2010 launch.
In an average year, online retailer Dangdang pushes out nearly half a million copies of The Magic School Bus. In all, 2.2 million multivolume book sets (approximately 64 million copies) of various editions have been sold. Dangdang sold upwards of 260,000 copies last November 11—the equivalent of Black Friday in the U.S. There are many other bestsellers at Beijing Dandelion, of course, including Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski’s Maps (700,000 copies sold) and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (133,000 copies).
Yan’s penchant for “uncovering old gems” has led her to authors such as Richard Scarry (five million copies sold since 2007) and Ursula Moray Williams. “Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Williams are neither Newbery nor Greenaway winners, but I insisted on buying the rights, and went on to sell 20,000 copies within four years,” Yan says. “That drove the original U.K. publisher to reissue the titles to fulfill demand from British parents who couldn’t find copies in bookstores or libraries. So these titles have come full circle, which is really great as we should treasure such great classics.” Yan recently purchased Kenneth Oppel and Jon Klassen’s The Nest and Lorena Siminovich’s You Are My Baby series.
Inspired by Random House, which Yan admires for its tradition of finding quality and evergreen content, she spent seven years collecting and preserving some of the best children’s comics made in China during the 1960s and ’70s. “I dragged my editor along for a six-month cross-country trip to seek out the original artists—some of whom were deceased—and the result, after considerable effort spent on reproducing these old works, is a 77-volume Classic Picture Books in China series,” she says. “Its September 2013 launch was one of the highest points in my publishing career.” Domestic sales upwards of 40,000 sets within a year have jump-started rights negotiations with publishers in Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore for the series.
Original picture books carefully developed by Yan and her team of nine editors have also made an impact in the market. There Is Always a Reason to Eat Buns, for instance, conveys family values through the interactions and exchanges between three generations of a family around buns; 7,000 copies were sold in the first two months. Hong Ying’s The Girl from the French Fort, on the other hand, digs deep into China’s cultural history to find interesting nuggets in the nation’s history. “These titles, while Chinese at the core, are very unique,” Yan says, adding that her publishing goal “is always about offering children books that promote tolerance and inclusivity.”
Distribution-wise, as a comparatively small publisher, Beijing Dandelion has far less bargaining power and gets far less shelf space than its larger competitors. This circumstance “prompted us to create a little bookstore, Space, within our two-story office in August 2016,” Yan says. “We went from CNY 13,000 in monthly receipts to CNY 30,000 a year later. Now we are nearing the CNY 1 million mark,” Yan adds. She set up a dedicated marketing team three years ago to focus on promotional activities and leverage social media channels for sales. “We have to make our own way independently,” she says.
But it is not just about the bottom line at Beijing Dandelion. “A book is not just for reading; it is also for collecting and entertaining and for lasting through generations,” Yan says. “The production and materials used must do justice to the content or else the intrinsic value of a book is lost. That, I believe, is also the responsibility of a discerning publisher.”